There have been a few big moments in the history of cooking – in 1961 when Julia Child published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”; in 1718 when Mary Eales recorded a recipe for ice cream; around 800 BC when the Greeks introduced olive oil to the Mediterranean. But nothing can beat that moment 1.8 million years ago when a Homo habilis creature … we’ll call him “Greg” … let the starchy root he was gnawing on slip into the fire, rescued it, took a bite, and evolved into a human.
Okay, that may be oversimplifying things. But Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham thinks that humans couldn’t have evolved until they learned to cook food. They couldn't have survived otherwise, he writes in the book “Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human.”
Before cooking, we had to spend an enormous amount of time chewing. Animals of similar size and weight to us chew five to six hours per day just to extract enough calories to maintain their body weight. If you add to that a necessary rest period when Greg’s gut would have been working to digest the fibrous mass he’d just eaten, that would be half the day. That left little time for other things like hunting and socializing. The average modern human, on the other hand, chews for less than one hour per day.
Cooking first developed about the same time that humans learned to control fire, logically. It may have happened accidentally, or Greg may have found an animal killed in a grass fire, and given it a nibble.
When cooking became a predictable daily occurrence, it benefited Homo habilis in several ways. It killed germs, destroyed some poisons, and made food safer. But more importantly, it gave him energy. When food is cooked, it becomes more digestible. Cooking gelatinizes starch, denatures protein, and softens both fiber and protein, permitting more complete digestion and energy extraction bite-for-bite than raw food. It is an enormous energy gain – from 30 to 50 percent.
Our ancient ancestors used that extra energy. They became more active as hunters and engaged in social activities. They had more babies and took care of them for longer. Over the generations, their bodies changed. They developed smaller stomachs, smaller mouths and teeth, and weaker jaws. With a smaller gut, their ribs became less flared and their pelvis narrowed . . . and with the energy saved from these changes, they grew bigger brains. Homo erectus had a 40% larger brain than Homo habilis and looked much more like a modern human.
So it was a great moment in history. Thanks Greg, for making olive oil, ice cream, cheese fondue, apple pie, Three Musketeers bars, and all the rest of it possible.